As a member of the U.S. House, Jared Polis has been on the front lines of the resistance to Donald Trump’s administration. But he feels the resistance can be most effective state by state, which is why he’s running for governor of Colorado.
“With Trump moving us backward on so many issues, we really need bold leadership at the state level,” Polis, who if elected would be the first openly gay man elected governor of any state, told The Advocate in a recent phone interview. “I feel I can make more progress back home in Colorado.”
Polis, who has represented Colorado’s Second Congressional District since 2009, is one of four Democrats seeking the gubernatorial nomination in the June 26 primary. A poll released today by Magellan Strategies showed him leading the field with the support of 31 percent of voters; his nearest competitor, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, had 18 percent. But the poll also showed 39 percent of respondents undecided. The current governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, is prevented by term limits from running again.
Polis seeks to win voters over with an agenda that includes clean energy – he wants to get Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 — free preschool and kindergarten, gun violence prevention, universal health care coverage, maintaining open spaces, and protecting young people from being forced into conversion therapy.
He points to accomplishments during his time in Congress, such as working with President Barack Obama to pass the Affordable Care Act and standing up to Republican efforts to repeal it. He’s also worked on updating the Every Student Succeeds Act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) and, recently, confronted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about why she isn’t doing more to protect transgender students in the nation’s public schools.
In a May hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on which he is the highest-ranking Democratic member, he grilled DeVos about recent court rulings in favor of trans students’ rights to have their gender recognized, but she said that until the Supreme Court rules on the matter, she isn’t going to “make up law.” DeVos, of course, had agreed to the withdrawal of Obama-era guidelines that advised schools to use trans students’ preferred names and pronouns, and allow them access to the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
This week, he expressed concern about a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that touched on his home state – the high court’s Monday decision overturning the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s finding that a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple violated the state’s antidiscrimination law. The court ruled that the commission had given inadequate consideration to the baker’s religious objections, and indeed showed hostility to his religion. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said he did not intend to create a blanket license to discriminate against LGBT people, though.
“The decision by the Court is disappointing, but thankfully narrow in scope,” Polis said in a statement released by his office. “Now is the time for Congress to answer definitively by adopting our bipartisan Equality Act into law. We can and must provide LGBTQ people with abundantly clear protections from discrimination in law. Nobody should have their dignity and basic rights put on trial, just as nobody should have to walk into a store and wonder if they will be denied service because of who they love.”
Polis is an original cosponsor of the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other existing civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, education, credit, housing, federal funding, jury service, and public accommodations. He is also the author of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, first introduced in 2010, which would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition on discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Both pieces of legislation remain pending.
Polis’s career in politics started with education – he was elected to the Colorado State Board of Education in 2000 and served there for six years, including stints as chairman and vice chairman. He’s also founded two charter schools, the New America School, which focuses on new immigrants, and the Academy of Urban Learning, which educates teens who are homeless or in otherwise unstable living environments.
Before entering politics, he was a successful entrepreneur, founding the tech company American Information Systems, then greeting card site BlueMountain.com (his mother, Susan Polis Schutz, is known for her poetic greeting cards) and ProFlowers.com, a website where users can order and send flowers and gifts. When he went into politics, “I was ready to give back and make a difference,” he said in the Advocate interview.
He’s excited about the possibility of being the nation’s first out gay man elected governor. “Nobody in this country should be held back for their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said.
New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey wasn't out when he was elected, but he came out in 2004 and immediately resigned. The first governor elected from the out LGBT population is Democrat Kate Brown of Oregon, who is bisexual; formerly secretary of state, she became governor in 2015 when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned (Oregon has no lieutenant governor). She was elected in her own right in a special election in 2016 and is running for reelection this year.
Gubernatorial candidates are trying to make LGBT history in three other states. Democrat Christine Hallquist is seeking to become the first openly transgender governor of Vermont; her primary is August 14. Richard Madeleno, a gay man, is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland; his primary, like Polis’s, is June 26. And Lupe Valdez, sheriff of Dallas County, has already won the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas; an out lesbian, she’ll face anti-LGBT incumbent Greg Abbott in November. All have the endorsement of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, as do Brown and Polis.
If Polis wins the primary, his Republican opponent will likely be Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who is the front-runner among four candidates in the GOP primary. Another well-known pol, former Congressman Tom Tancredo, sought the Republican nomination at one point but dropped out of the race several months ago. Early polling showed him trailing in hypothetical races against each of the four Democrats.
Polis knows a thing or two about firsts – among other things, in 2011 he became the first openly gay parent in Congress, when he and partner Marlon Reis welcomed their son, Caspian. They became parents of a daughter, Cora, in 2014.
Polis believes he’s leaving his congressional district in good hands. Two Democrats, Mark Williams and Joe Noguse, are seeking the nomination; Peter Yu is the only declared Republican candidate. The district stretches from Boulder to Colorado’s northern border and is known for liberalism. “I’m confident it’ll remain in Democratic hands,” said Polis, who hasn’t made an endorsement. He also has yet to choose a running mate.
While vying for Colorado’s top job, Polis recognizes there’s still work for him to do in Washington. “I’m going to spend my last few months in Congress pushing back against President Trump’s divisive agenda,” he said.
For Colorado voters who want to learn more about Polis and other candidates, One Colorado will hold a Gubernatorial Forum on LGBTQ Issues tonight at 6 at the EXDO Event Center in Denver. Find more info here.